Rational answers to COVID-19 sceptics and anti-vaxxers

I know this post will not convince all sceptics. That is because in order to convince someone with scientific evidence and logic, that someone must first of all appreciate the value of scientific research and have a basic capacity for logical reasoning. Some people fail to meet one or both of these conditions, and consequently prove impervious to any attempt to change their minds. Tragically, unvaccinated sceptics have already ended up in hospital with COVID-19. Even as they are put on a mechanical ventilator, some literally continue to deny the pandemic or defend their decision not to get vaccinated. So this writing is not for them, for they are already lost. Instead, I write this for the otherwise reasonable people who have simply been misinformed by friends, relatives, conspiracy theorists, and quacks. This blogpost isn’t final, it will be updated if needed when I encounter more silliness on social media.

“COVID-19 is just the Flu”

No, that is incorrect. COVID-19 is caused by (variants) of SARS-CoV-2, which is a new pathogen. The flu is caused by different viruses. While some symptoms are similar, some of the symptoms of COVID-19 are really quite different from the seasonal flu (see this page on the CDC website). And COVID-19 has greater mortality rate (see for example this French study recently published in The Lancet). There’s a good reason that “SARS” in SARS-CoV-2 stands for “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome”, and that reason is that it ain’t the flu.

“The sudden rise in COVID-19 cases is due to increased testing, not because the actual number of cases is increasing.”

That is an over-simplication, and therefore incorrect. Epidemiologists don’t look at one number. There are several factors that inform healthcare professionals about how the pandemic is developing. They look at absolute number of positive tests, the relative percentage of positive tests out of all tests, the change in number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, the number of deaths, and they use contact-tracing. All that kind of information combined, gives a reasonable indication of how the pandemic is developing. See also this page on the CDC website.

“The vaccines don’t work, because people who are vaccinated can still get sick. You can also die from the vaccine itself.”

First of all, it’s true that vaccinated people can still get COVID-19. None of the COVID-19 vaccines were ever claimed to be 100% effective at preventing infections. A relatively small number of vaccinated people may still get sick, and this is called a ‘break-through’ infection. But that doesn’t mean the vaccines don’t work. The risk of a COVID-19 infection is a lot lower when you’re vaccinated, and even if you do get infected the symptoms are less severe. That’s allready a huge benefit. Seatbelts aren’t 100% effective either, and people can also die from wearing a seatbelt, for example when a car becomes submersed in water. But that is an exceedingly rare event and seatbelts are statistically speaking far more likely to prevent death or serious injury than cause it. A similar kind of trade-off is made when judging the benefits of vaccination. An averse reaction from a vaccine that results in death is an exceedingly rare occurrence. Since vaccines are incredibly safe and are highly effective at preventing severe COVID-19, getting vaccinated is simply the smart thing to do.

“The number of vaccine deaths is underreported, and the number of COVID-19 deaths are exagerated.”

This claim contains an obvious contradiction. Either deaths are underreported in both cases, or both are exagerated. Pick a lane. But what do the actual facts tell us? They tell us that the number of COVID-19 deaths are very likely underreported. In India alone, there are probably at least 3 million more COVID-19 deaths than reported. And all vaccine related deaths that have been investigated so far, show that it is exceedingly rare to die from a vaccination. Thus, the benefits of vaccination vastly outweigh the risks. Further reading HERE, HERE, and HERE. Vaccines are safe and effective. Get the jab.

“COVID-19 has an IFR of just 0.15%, so the pandemic is not as deadly as the media tell us.”

That statement is incorrect, for a number of reasons. First, you can look up what the WHO has determined about the IFR value. A recent paper suggests that depending on the region you look at, the IFR can range from 0·00% to 1·62%, with an average of about 0·23% (though it can be less than 0·20% when the best medical treatment is available). So you can’t simply pull an IFR out of your hat and apply that to every region on earth. Secondly, the IFR is calculated as the ratio between the number of deaths and the number of infections. However, the real number of deaths is unknown, and the official figures are likely to be an underestimation. Likewise, the real number of infections are also unknown, as not everyone is tested. Therefore both the numerator and enumerator are based on uncertain values. Thus, the most accurate COVID-19 IFR value is still a matter of debate among researchers, and the article that claimed the 0·15% IFR value is attracting a fair bit of criticism from other scientists. Thirdly, even if you accept the IFR of 0·15% as correct, then that means COVID-19 is still 1·5 times more deadly than the flu (IFR = 0·10%). For these reasons only an idiot would base policy regarding corona-measures on just an IFR estimate.

And now a brief word on the meaning of any value of IFR. As the name Infection Fatality Rate implies, the number of fatalities will depend on the number of infected people. Because the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is far more infectious than the flu, the total number of fatalities will be a lot higher even if both IFR values were the same. In other words, the basic reproduction number R0 is far greater. The net-result is a much greater death-toll, unless measures are taken to either lower the R0 (by social distancing, wearing face masks, etc), or by lowering the case fatality rate (CFR) through improved treatment options.

Here’s another example to illustrate the point. The deadly hemorrhahic fever disease Ebola has a case fatality rate (CFR) of at least 50% (which in the case of Ebola will be pretty close to IFR)—but could be about 70% or even higher according to some estimates. Nonetheless, all Ebola outbreaks combined since 1976 have claimed no more than in the order of 11,000+ lives. That is because Ebola has an exceptionally low R0: you only get infected by direct physical contact with an Ebola patient. In other words, an incredibly deadly disease like Ebola is nothing to worry about. The IFR and CFR values clearly do not tell the whole story.

However, what does tell a story is the staggering number of COVID-19 deaths. Yes, the number of Ebola deaths is great, but it’s dwarfed by the millions of worldwide COVID-19 deaths. Minimize your chances of getting infected, get vaccinated.

“Face masks are for sheep, they don’t prevent COVID-19.”

Recent research says otherwise. Face masks do in fact help in limiting the spread of COVID-19. There is clearly more than enough evidence now. See also the information on this page of the WHO’s website. Furthermore, a recent study shows that aerosols play a more important role in transmission than previously thought. So don’t just wear a face mask, but also practice social distancing, avoid gatherings in poorly ventilated spaces, and (most importantly) get vaccinated. But what—to me at least—stands out more in the false claim by the anti-maskers, is the word ‘sheep’. That word is used often by COVID-19 sceptics in a derogatory way, to communicate that face mask wearing people are stupid people who just blindly follow the rules without thinking. But since studies have now shown that wearing a face mask helps prevent infection, wearing a face mask clearly isn’t stupid. Additionally, some people (such as myself) began wearing face masks even before they became mandatory, and continue to wear them even though they are no longer required in many public areas. Consequently, calling people who wear face masks ‘sheep’ is now just as idiotic as calling skydivers ‘sheep’ for using parachutes. So be reasonable, wear a face mask whenever appropriate. And, again, get vaccinated.

“Only vulnerable people should wear face masks, and they should self-isolate.”

First of all, SARS-CoV-2 is a new and rapidly mutating viral pathogen, so no one is safe. Second, COVID-19 has claimed over 600,000 deaths in the USA alone. The number of vulnerable people is clearly enormous. Obesity, one of the known risk factors for severe COVID-19, can almost be called a pandemic by itself. And diabetes, another common risk-factor, is well and truly a global pandemic. The numbers of people affected by one or more risk-factors is simply staggering. You can’t expect such a large part of the population to withdraw from public life. Third, face masks mainly work by protecting others from getting COVID-19 from you, not the other way around. Thus, the greatest effect of face mask wearing is only achieved when everyone wears them. Fourth, and finally; show some empathy, be a ‘mensch’. It only takes a bit of patience, and then this pandemic too—just as others that have plagued mankind—will pass. Every country with sufficient proportions of vaccinated people has seen a dramatic drop in hospitalizations and death. Those countries have ended lock-downs, they’ve started opening up bars and restaurants, and lifted travel restrictions. Once everyone has had a chance to be fully vaccinated, most—or maybe even all—remaining measures will cease. Until then, it’s really just such a trivial effort, and such a minor discomfort, to wear a face mask and to get vaccinated. If not for yourself, then do it for everyone else. As Spock once said: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.” Be like Spock. Get vaccinated. It’s the logical thing to do.

“The COVID-19 vaccines only have emergency approval, they’re still experimental.”

Emergency use authorization (EUA) is still approval. No approval is ever given to medication that hasn’t at least been tested for safety and passed clinical trials. Consequently, there are currently no trials aimed at studying the safety of the vaccines anymore. Indeed, that phase has already been concluded, as it is in fact a requirement even for EUA. See also this document from the FDA for the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine. The only important thing that researchers are currently investigating is how long the vaccines provide protection, and perhaps to what degree the vaccines protect against new SARS-CoV-2 variants. Furthermore, the vaccines are not the only medicines with emergency approval use. Some of the drugs used to treat COVID-19 in the hostpital also have emergency use approval, here is an example for tocilizumab. Just because you are only now finding out how organizations like the FDA and EMA approve new medications, doesn’t mean you should suddenly distrust the evidence-based medicine and the safety protocols used by those organizations and healthcare professionals for many decades. Innumerable doctors and biomedical researchers around the world want nothing more than to help people like you. So let them. Get vaccinated.

“The long-term side-effects of the mRNA vaccines are unknown.”

It is extremely unlikely for vaccine related side-effects to appear after a long period of time. The mRNA vaccines break down quite rapidly, due to the way mRNA is treated in the cytoplasm of cells. See also this excellent explanation of how the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine was developed, and how it works. And when you know a bit how mRNA vaccines work, you will come to understand that any side-effects from the vaccine can only appear within a relatively short period after vaccination. The reason for that is that mRNA is broken down rather fast. The only thing that remains after that is your own immune response, just as it is with any other type of vaccination. The first mRNA vaccinations where given well over a year ago, and no side-effects have been reported other than those that occur with a short period after vaccination. No vaccine has ever been known to cause side-effects that appear after a long time. There is nothing to worry about, just get vaccinated.

“The vaccines are made by ‘Big Pharma’, I don’t trust them.”

It’s true that the large pharmaceutical companies that produce effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines are making a lot of money. Nevertheless, all approved vaccines first passed independent testing in clinical trials, to demonstrate both efficacy and safety. The clinical trials are conducted by independent academic researchers, in many hospitals, with tens of thousands of participants. After publication in high-ranking, peer-reviewed medical journals, the evidence is presented to a drug authority, like the FDA. Then it is either approved, or not approved. And approval isn’t some technical formality, they really look at the data carefully. If something isn’t right, it won’t get approved. For example, the Sputnik V vaccine has not yet been approved by Europe’s EMA because the developers failed to submit research data.

But beyond the strict approval rules, enough evidence has come in from the field showing that the vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID-19 related death or severe illness. Hospitals all over the world are beginning to see that most of their COVID-19 patients are either unvaccinated, or partially vaccinated. And hospitals don’t really care about “Big Pharma”. For example, one of the most prescribed medicines for patients with severe COVID-19 is dexamethasone. And dexamethasone is dirt cheap. If doctors wanted to make “Big Pharma” a lot of money, there are plenty of more expensive alternatives that they could have prescribed instead. If you don’t trust pharmaceutical companies, then at least just trust the doctors and academic researchers. They know what they’re doing, and they recommend getting vaccinated. So get vaccinated.

“COVID-19 only affects old people and people with underlying conditions, so I don’t need the vaccine.”

That is just plainly incorrect. It may be true that people over 65 and people with certain underlying conditions statistically have a greater chance of getting severe COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean young, healthy people don’t get sick as well. Many “anti-vaxxers” boast that they won’t get infected, because they live so healthily, take vitamin D3 supplements, and therefore have such a strong immune system that they are immune to COVID-19. But they are kidding themselves. That’s not how immunity works. Since SARS-CoV-2 is a new pathogen, no one on earth will have any immunity against it, except those who’ve either already gotten COVID-19 or were vaccinated. Specific acquired immunity against a novel pathogen can only be achieved after infection by that pathogen, and an even stronger immune response may be achieved by vaccination. You can look this up in any introductory academic textbook on immunology, even older books that existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the second figure in the first chapter of Basic Immunology gives examples of several infectious diseases that have been drastically reduced, or almost eradicated, by vaccination. The best and safest way to produce the most anti-bodies against SARS-CoV-2 is by getting vaccinated, not by getting sick with COVID-19. The vaccinations also indirectly confer some protection to vulnerable people by limiting the spread of COVID-19, a phenomenon known as ‘herd-immunity’. There is only one logical course of action, and that is to get vaccinated.

“In England, 43% of the COVID-19 patients on the ICUs were vaccinated. That proves the vaccines don’t work that well.”

That is a well known statistical fallacy. You can’t directly compare numbers of vaccinated, partially vaccinated and unvaccinated patients like that. For a proper comparison, you must look at the number of vaccinated patients with regards to the size of the vaccinated population, and then do the same for the unvaccinated. That will then give you two proportions that you can compare with each other. Allow me to illustrate that principle with an example.

Say you have a population of 100 million, and 90% of the population is vaccinated. That means 90 million are vaccinated, and 10 million unvaccinated. Now let’s say that there are 10 million patients with COVID-19 in the hospitals. Of those patients, 4·3 million of them will be vaccinated and 5·7 million will be unvaccinated. But now you can already see that’s a whopping 5·7 million out of 10 million unvaccinated, compared to just 4·3 million out of 90 million vaccinated. Yikes! That means 57% of the unvaccinated population ended up in the ICU, compared to just 5·11% of the vaccinated population, a difference of more than one order of magnitude!

These numbers are of course fictitious, I chose them because they are easy to work with and to clearly make my point. Because whenever you see a percentage, you must always ask: A percentage of what? Scientists are looking at the real population data—using the correct statistics—and it is abundantly clear that the vaccines (and particularly the mRNA vaccines) work really well. Trust the numbers, get vaccinated.

“The mRNA vaccine will alter my DNA”

No, it won’t. This has already been fact-checked. mRNA breaks down quickly. Your DNA is in the nucleus, which mRNA cannot enter. Also, the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccines have successfully passed phase III clinical trials. One of the things the authorities specifically check for is whether a vaccine causes DNA changes that turn humans into zombie mutants, or melts them into a bubbling green puddle of genetic protoplasm. You may rest assured, the mRNA vaccines are safe.

“Viruses always evolve to be less deadly, so the new SARS-CoV-2 variants are less lethal.”

Nope, that’s not true. The claim here is that because a virus can only multiply and spread effectively from living hosts, any successful virus will always evolve to keep their hosts alive as long as possible. In other words, viruses always evolve to become less lethal. But unfortunately, that statement is incorrect. While it is true that some viruses become less deadly over time, there are also viruses that become more deadly, or stay pretty much the same. That is because there may exist certain evolutionary constraints that limit the ways a virus can adapt. Take Ebola, for example, a highly infectious viral disease with a case fatality rate of at least 50%. Ebola spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. But this leaking of bodily fluids also causes the hypovolemic shock that is the most important cause of death in Ebola patients. Thus, the infection pathway of the Ebola virus is inextricably linked with its lethality. In other words, it’s unlikely that the Ebola virus will evolve to become both less lethal and at the same time more infectious. That is the constraint of evolution in this particular virus. And the Ebola virus is just one example, see this fact-check for more information. Similar constraints may apply to SARS-CoV-2, showing that you cannot cherrypick some over-simplified evolutionary theory to predict what’s going to happen. You always need to look at the data coming in from the field, and the data about new dominant strains of SARS-CoV-2 are clearly telling us that COVID-19 is becoming more infectious, but unfortunately no less deadly. In fact, recent research (that I also referenced regarding use of face masks) suggests that viral RNA is more readily detected earlier in the COVID-19 infection. So, also when infected individuals are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. That means that the most important infection pathway takes place long before someone becomes hospitalized or dies from COVID-19 in isolation, which also means that mortality rate is less likely to be an important constraint in the evolution of SARS-CoV-2. Because if most people infect others before they get fully symptomatic, then the virus isn’t really going to care what happens to its host once the infected human is put in isolation upon becoming symptomatic. So it’s definitely okay to be worried, and now is the time to get vaccinated if you haven’t already.

“A distinguished professor and Nobel prize winner said that vaccines are dangerous and don’t work.”

First of all, we know from all the tests and the data from hundreds of millions of vaccinations that the vaccines are safe and that they are effective. Second, there’s not a single Nobel prize winning scientist in modern history who won the award without publishing in peer-reviewed magazines. Unsurprisingly, you will find that the Nobel laureates who are said to be critical of vaccinations have not published anything in peer-reviewed journals to support those theories.

However, there are indeed a few Nobel prize winners who became a bit nutty, later in life. This phenomenon is known as Nobel disease. One such Nobel prize laureate, Luc Montagnier, apparently moved to China, were he has “researched” non-peer-reviewed crackpot theories related to homeopathy.

And finally, there is another good reason why this argument fails. Against possibly one or two Nobel prize winners on the side of the anti-vaxxers, there are literally more than a hundred Nobel laureates who actively promote vaccinations against COVID-19. In other words, we have more Nobel prize winners on our side than the anti-vaxxers can shake a stick at. Not to mention the countless other distinguished scientists who also support the vaccinations. So, if titles and academic honors mean more to you than scientific publications, then you should still get vaccinated.

Review of Joker

Slight spoiler alert, I reveal some details about the movie. Best to watch it first before reading on.

The 2019 movie “Joker” is available on Netflix and my review of it is long overdue. To say that this is a somewhat controversial movie would be an understatement. Reviewers seem highly polarized in their opinions. Roughly half the reviewers thought the movie absolutely sucked, while the other half thought it was a truly great movie. There were some who literally feared mass shootings, and there were some who praised the movie for addressing important issues related to how society deals with mental healthcare.  

A few mental healthcare specialists have pointed out that Joker does not offer a realistic portrayal of mental disorders. Some even went so far as to write to newspapers to express their concern that the factual misrepresentation of mental disease in Joker might damage the public image of real people with psychiatric conditions. On the other end of the spectrum, we find specialists who reflect more favourably on the movie and who successfully argue in a peer-reviewed journal that Joker actually does a pretty decent job of depicting traumatic brain injury.

Going beyond the fascinating—but otherwise irrelevant—factual accuracy of the movie’s portrayal of mental illness, one reviewer of Joker wrote that a movie must first of all be interesting. And in his opinion, Joker wasn’t. I think that’s a bit odd. Allright, Joker isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. That’s understandable. But considering the polarizing result, the mass media attention, the controversy surrounding Joker, it could certainly be argued that Joker is anything but uninteresting. Quite the contrary. Admittedly, much of the reason for that is the Oscar winning performance of Joaquin Phoenix. His version of Joker really steals the show. Perhaps that’s why the movie’s title is simply “Joker” and not “A Treatise on Social Injustice, Economic Inequality, and the Rise of the Commedia dell’Arte in pre-Chiropteran Gotham”.

Now about the movie itself. Right from the beginning, it’s clear that Gotham is a sick town. The news playing on a radio in the background informs us that Gotham city is turning into one big rat-infested trash heap because of a long strike by garbage collectors. Arthur Fleck, a traumatized rent-a-clown, goes to work as a sign-spinner on a busy street in front of a store going out of business. He does so next to a porn movie theater bearing a sign saying that it’s “healthily air conditioned” inside. So this movie is not just about mental disorder, it’s about a whole city that is out of order. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s heavy melancholic cello music (also Oscar winning) is perfect. The mood is further enhanced by the cinematographer’s use of a green filter, casting a sickly hue in every shot. Frequent use of low aperture results in a tasty ‘bokeh’—or differential focus—in some key scenes, creates a fitting sense of introversion. To me it emphasized the narcissistic, self-centered aspect of Arthur’s personality, as well as his mental sickness.

It’s hard to imagine this movie being as successful as it is with any other actor playing Joker than Joaquin Phoenix. His performance was simply amazing, the best I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie in quite a while, and in my view justly rewarded with an Oscar. The way he uses almost every muscle fiber and makes his bones stand out in his lanky sinewy body really works perfectly. He makes Arthur look broken, malnourished, bruised… The heavy smoking completes the image of sickness. In the opening scene, Arthur applies clown makeup and with his fingers pulls the corners of his mouth into a smile while a glistening tear runs over his cheek. That’s Arthur before he is Joker. He does it again after his transformation in the end. The movie has a certain pleasant symmetry.

Arthur’s main goal in life is to become a comedian. But as we follow him on his journey along that path, we soon realize how insane that is. When Arthur visits a comedy club during amateur hour, seeking inspiration for his material, he writes weird notes in his personal notebook, such as ‘sexy jokes alwaze funny’ ,while laughing completely out of sync with the rest of the audience. Arthur has no intuition of comedy. Instead he just copies jokes and behavior from other people as if they were recipes in a cookbook, to be served at the right time. Arthur’s ambition of becoming a comedian is so ill suited to someone with his mindset that it is a bit ironic. Like a person with a pathological lack of empathy for other people’s wellbeing desperately trying to become a grief counselor or nurse. Arthur even copies the moves for his entrance on the Murphy Show from a previous guest by watching a recording of the show. The stark contrast between the aspiring comedian, and the psychotic, hallucinating, mentally unhinged trauma survivor works really well.

Arthur’s unusual collection of mental conditions, which is what some reviewers seems to find problematic or even controversial, is not the most important aspect of the movie. Instead, I feel the most relevant thing is more how his milieu reacts to his conditions. Arthur’s curious collection of mental problems may or may not be accurate, but it still lends itself perfectly well for a valid commentary on how modern society treats people with mental problems. Arthur’s lack of support from social workers, the way people react to him in public, his virtually non-existent treatment by specialist healthcare professionals, the outrageous cutbacks, ending his medication, social isolation, his lack of education, living in a badly maintained apartment building where he takes care of his mother and watches TV… It’s a desperate situation to be in. And there are elements that feel pretty close to real life. Inadequate funding for mental healthcare is a real issue in the Netherlands, for example, where it was recently reported that waiting lists to treat young people dealing with serious mental conditions can now be as long as two years. That waiting period even applies to young people asking for help to deal with suicidal depression. For some on that list, help comes too late…

But there is of course more to the Joker origin story than just the city’s socio-economic problems and the critique of mental healthcare in modern society. The connection between Arthur and Thomas Wayne is also explored, in an interesting way. And there is a sort of twist that reminded me a bit of ‘Fight Club’, which I won’t spoil here. Yet, I don’t think there’s enough in this movie to justify a sequel. Do we really need to see yet another Bruce Wayne turn into yet another Batman? I don’t think so. In that sense, Joker is already a finished movie that can stand by itself. In the end, we see Arthur sitting at a table across an employee of the Arkham asylum. Arthur is laughing uncontrollably, but perhaps this time his laughter isn’t because of the brain trauma. When the employee asks him what’s so funny—apparently unaware of his trauma related laughing condition—he replies: “You wouldn’t get it.” The perfect answer, from a homicidal comedian who never got a joke in his entire life. I rate Joker 8/10.

Are humans supposed to eat meat?

Ever heard of the expression “Better than sex”? There are really only two things in this world that expression applies to. One of them is heroin, a well-known highly addictive drug. And the other is food. The importance of food in life, art, and culture cannot be overstated. The earliest cave painting by man dates back about 40,000 years and depicts a hunting scene. The depiction of food in art unquestionably predates the painting of voluptuous reclining nude women, reposing in chaise longues and partially draped in velvet. And did you ever wonder how Ruben’s nude models came to be so voluptuous? Or why the Venus of Willendorf seems to have a BMI in the upper range? The answer is again food. That is why food is connected to affluence and fertility. Just like sex and drugs, food—especially energy rich food—activate our brain’s reward system. Is that not why we often enjoy certain foods even when we’re not really hungry? We use food to train tigers to jump through rings of fire, and food is used to condition distant relatives of wolves to fetch our Sunday morning newspaper. That should tell you something. Countless ex-drug addicts and many generations of pious celibates exist, but the only people I know who do not eat are either dead people or supermodels. Food is what sustained your growth in your mother’s womb. Food is life.

Eating food is something all of us have done since the day we were born. Of course most of us don’t immediately move on to a menu of foie gras d’oei and confit de canard, accompanied by some fine bottle of châteaux clos vougeot for example. Instead, most humans begin life by eating what their parents feed them. Home cooked food, mostly. Some recipes acquired during the lifetime of the parents, others passed down through generations. Recipes for boiling vegetables, recipes for making salads, recipes for stir-frying noodles, and recipes for preparing meat. Everything and anything. There isn’t much that walks or crawls on this earth that isn’t eaten in one culture or another. Humans are really typical omnivores, a lot like baboons or chimpanzees. You’d be hard pressed to find a culinary culture on this planet that does not include nuts, fruits, vegetables, roots, and some form of animal protein. So imagine my surprise when I encountered a page on the PETA website boldly asserting that humans are not supposed to eat meat.

Of course I understand that PETA is an organisation that promotes animal rights and welfare, and that slaughtering animals is not a practice that agrees with those principles. But unorthodox claims such as theirs must be supported by plain facts. Anything less basically implies the use of  dezinformatsia to promote some kind of agenda. So how do their biological and evolutionary arguments stand to critical analysis? Recently I have tried to find that out.

Their first argument against eating meat is that most humans can’t stand the sight of blood, intestines, and raw meat. This, in my humble opinion, reflects a cultural bias. Because most humans do not live in highly developed Western countries, where the consumer of meat is shielded from the modern industrialised slaughtering and butchering process. Indeed, there are plenty of cultures on earth that still hunt for food, eat raw meat, and some even drink blood. Check out this video of the Massai drinking blood and eating raw meat, and note how none of them vomit, pass out, or seem otherwise disgusted by their meal.

 

If people from Western cultures can’t stand the sight of a slaughtered animal, then it is probably because they never see an animal butchered anymore. In the book Ozma of Oz (1907), the protagonist Dorothy Gale stumbles upon a lunch-box tree that grows containers with ham sandwiches. You may perhaps laugh at the idea—and admire the creative genius and humor of the author—but in Western society this way of thinking about where meat products come from is actually not far from the truth anymore. However, let me assure you that for most people on earth the sight of a slaughtered animal signals the potential for a tasty dinner.
 
The next point PETA makes is that humans don’t have carnivorous teeth or claws, and therefore are not built to kill and tear apart animals. Nonsense I say. I would argue that humans have the biggest, sharpest canines in the whole animal kingdom. I have included a picture below to demonstrate the typical size and nature of a specimen that would put even the greatest predators to shame. 
My, what big teeth we have!

A fairly typical example of the kind of tooth humans use to tear into flesh, though much bigger specimens exist. For comparison; a Bengal tiger’s canines are only about 10cm in length.

 

Clearly, our species is perfectly capable of dealing with cadavers. Humans have used tools and cooked their food at least since the stone age—which began about 2.6 million years ago—and evidence of the first spears dates to at least half a million years ago. And there is also plenty of scientific literature showing that our proclivity for the omnivorous lifestyle is very much a part of our evolutionary heritage, as this Nature article highlights for example. It remains an open question to what extent meat was part of the early hominid diet, and it is beyond question that excess consumption of animal products in the Western diet is a an important contributing factor to what have come to be known as ‘lifestyle-diseases’. Yet that is far more a problem of recent industrialisation and the ensuing cornucopia of meat in our modern world, than a biological problem with eating meat per se.

But then PETA continues with the argument that “Our digestive system doesn’t like meat”. Here they again demonstrate that they don’t quite understand biology that well. Yes the gastro-intestinal (GI) tract of humans is not as short as that of carnivores, but neither is it as long as that of herbivores. And there exists at least one scientific publication noting that humans have low gastric acid pH values that are on par with those of predators and scavengers. Another paper compared the acid levels between the beagle (a domesticated carnivore) and humans, finding that human gastric juices are actually more acidic. Yet another paper compares a particular property of the GI tract—the coefficient of gut differentiation—for a number of species ranging from predators and scavengers to herbivores and omnivores. In that study, humans are ranked among the omnivores. Thus the omnivorous diet of humans is not just a lifestyle choice, it is clearly a biological fact.
 
The PETA page goes on with the statement that meat may cause food poisoning in humans. To that I would say “And vegetables don’t?” People can become violently ill from peanut allergies, deaths from eating unripe tomatoes still occur in a few cases each year, and some individuals risk their lives by mistakenly eating poisonous mushrooms or a rotten potato salad. Except for maybe a few edible fruits—which the plant offers only because it benefits the plant’s reproduction—nothing in nature wants to be eaten, and almost every organism will basically try as hard as possible to kill you if you give them half a chance. That is why completely immunocompromised people don’t live long; they die of infections that no normal human would ever have to worry about. Plants, unlike animals, can’t run away, so they stand their ground and synthesise powerful toxins to avoid herbivory. Eating badly prepared, poorly selected, or rotten fruits, vegetables or mistaking a toadstool for a safe mushroom can make you just as sick as eating bad meat. In 2017, a then 74 year old Dutchman nearly died after eating some apricot seeds that he’d bought at a health food store. So just because something isn’t an animal doesn’t mean its safe to ingest. Eating correctly prepared meat, on the other hand, is pretty much just as safe as eating anything else that doesn’t contain toxins and food-borne pathogens in quantities that could cause illness. 
 

And PETA also asks the question “If humans were meant to eat meat, why do meat-eaters have a 32 percent higher risk of developing heart disease than vegetarians?” Well, that is perhaps because people who eat meat are often consummate bon vivants who al to frequently overindulge, overwhelmed as they are by sudden bouts of joie de vivre. Also, such studies look at processed meat. In other words, many meat eaters dine too often on modified cuts with too much additives. It’s that inconvenient reward system of the human brain again, overruling reason. And no one ever said living the good life would be a long life. And if just eating veggies is so awesome, then why don’t we naturally gravitate towards a plant-only diet? Why don’t children eat only the boiled vegetables, while leaving the fried chips and grilled meat untouched? How many parents have arguments with their children because they only eat cabbages and carrots, but avoid hotdogs, pepperoni pizzas, and barbecued meats? I vividly remember how my mother would not put her mouthwatering pancakes with bacon and thick syrup on the table until I first ate my spinach. And when I was about five or six years old, I came downstairs to the kitchen one early morning, used a chair to climb on the counter, and started eating brown sugar straight from a jar. Why didn’t I go for the bowl with tomatoes? Examples from my own life are just anecdotal evidence of course, but a quick glance at the literature shows that most humans are born with a preference for energy dense food. That is why it may take some time before a child ‘learns’ to eat Brussel sprouts, whereas sweet confectionaries and junk-food are instantly appreciated by all. And once a society becomes sufficiently wealthy that anyone can afford to eat steak every day of the week, then some people will actually do just that.

An increasing amount of research is finding that the differences are not just related to differences in experience with foods, but that there is also a genetic component involved in taste. There are innate differences in sensitivity to bitter taste, for example. And there may be an epigenetic component as well. For example, a recent study found altered DNA methylation patterns in Dutch people who were prenatal when their mothers lived through the Hunger Winter during the second world war. That particular cohort experienced a number of associated health problems later in life, including obesity and metabolic diseases. Thus, while I would certainly agree that humanity ought to eat less meat, we should also appreciate that there are inborn biological factors that determine our eating habits, our gustatory senses, and our metabolic constitution. But there are ways to encourage a healthier balance in our diets. The UK has famously imposed a sugar tax in an effort to stem the tide of obesity that threatens to put an increasingly huge burden on their healthcare system. It would be just as easy to tax meat for the same reason, and other reasons as well (animal husbandry also contributes to climate change, for example).

So should humans eat meat? Well, my problem is with the word ‘should’. From an environmental perspective, assuming a certain set of strict moral and ethical standards regarding animal life, the answer is no. But from a biological perspective the answer is yes. Yes, we ‘should’ eat meat, but we should do so in moderation just like every treat in life. Not more than once or twice per week. Because while eating meat is a part of our evolutionary history, the amount of meat we have only recently begun to consume every year certainly is not. As with all things in life, neither excess nor shortage are good.

Having answered the original question, I would like to end with a note on some of the references I often see in the kind of pro-vegan writings I have found online. Beware of statements that begin with “a professor from Harvard” or “a distinguished surgeon in Kansas”. When a sentence begins with throwing around academic titles and fancy research institutions, I have found that what follows is typically either some misinterpreted fact or a plainly incorrect one. You want an example? Alright. The PETA page that prompted me to write this post at some point refers to an article on Huffpost: “Shattering The Meat Myth: Humans Are Natural Vegetarians“. The author of that piece—Kathy Freston—cites an essay written by a Dr. Milton Mills, titled “A comparative anatomy of eating”. And what do you see when you read that essay? No references of any kind, and an absolutely shameful load of twaddle on human evolution and physiology. And that from an alumnus of the medical school of Stanford (apparently). Go figure…